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~~ All characters in this book are over 18. ~~
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Fifteen years ago…
The pounding at her door woke Maureen out of a sound sleep.
“What the hell?” Janice said muzzily from her spot beside her. She sat up, the blankets falling away from her bare chest. “What time is it?”
“Too damn,” she said, turning on the lamp and squinting against the glare. She looked at her alarm clock and winced. The red digits read just after one in the morning.
“Too damn early,” she said shortly. “Or too damn late.” She raised her voice in response to another spate of loud knocks. “All right, all right! I’m coming, damn it!” Annoyance made her voice sharp.
She pulled on her bathrobe, tightening the sash around her waist, and strode quickly through the small apartment she and Janice shared. “Fuck,” she said, after a quick glance through the peephole. “It’s a cop.”
“Do you think he’s come to arrest us for contributing to the moral depravity of the neighborhood?” Janice asked, peeking around a corner. “That’s what the old bat next door keeps threatening to do.”
“Doubt it.” Maureen unlocked the deadbolt, but left the chain on. Cracking the door open, she looked out. “Yes?”
“My apologies, ma’am. Are you Maureen Lawrence?”
She nodded. “Yes?”
“Do you know a man by the name of Bryce Lawrence?”
A cold hand seemed to clutch her chest and she undid the chain, pulling the door open wide. “Yes. He’s my brother. Has something happened to Bryce?”
The officer stood back. He was in a dress uniform, and very attractive in a clean-cut, all-American way. In fact, if she had met him at a bar when she and Janice went clubbing, she might have been more than a little tempted to take him home and find out what he looked like naked, and if the two of them could make a good boy bad for a night. Or even longer. “Ma’am. There’s been an accident. And he had a card in his wallet listing you as his next of kin.”
“Are they okay? Bryce and Kathleen and Brandon?” Her knees wobbled, and suddenly Janice was there, somehow dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, giving her a shoulder to lean on. God, Kathleen had been three months pregnant. They had just told them all the happy news at the Memorial Day picnic a few weeks ago! “What happened?”
“I really don’t know, ma’am.” But his eyes shifted away, towards Janice, and she knew he was lying. “Maybe your…roommate…can drive you to the hospital. Or I could take you.”
Some perverse desire led her to snap. “She isn’t my roommate. She’s my girlfriend.”
“Very good, ma’am.” The officer’s expression didn’t change a whit, and she felt guilty for taunting him. Even here, in Chicago, there were lots of people who were uncomfortable with being confronted openly by her same-sex relationship with Janice, though her family had made their peace with it years ago. They didn’t like it. But they accepted it.
She shook her head. This wasn’t important. “Janice. Can you drive me? I have to…” Her throat closed. “I have to know.”
“Of course.” Her eyes shifted to the officer. “Where are they?”
“St. Mark’s,” he replied. “It’s-“
“I know where it is,” Janice said. She closed the door in his face, then headed for the bedroom. “Come on. Let’s get you dressed. And don’t forget your ID.”
Yeah. Because they don’t go looking the next of kin for just anything. She shivered. What happened?
“It was an accident,” Dr. Young said. Heavyset, graying, with deep lines on his face, he guided Maureen and Janice into a private room, and waited until they found seats on the worn couch. “He wasn’t drunk and it wasn’t anyone’s fault, as far as we can tell. His brakes failed and he ran a red light at Austin and hit the driver’s side of your brother’s car. I’m very sorry, Miss Lawrence. Your brother didn’t survive the impact. He was pronounced dead at the scene.”
“Bryce…is dead?” No. He couldn’t be! Not her big brother, who had always been there for her. Who had faced down their parents when she came out as bisexual in high school, telling them if they had a problem with Maureen, then they had a problem with him, too. Smart, handsome, headstrong Bryce, who had always been able to make her laugh, even when things had been at their worst, with her body giving her signals she couldn’t interpret. Bryce, who had married his high-school sweetheart and made sure she danced with both him and Maureen at their wedding.
“What about Kathleen?” Beautiful, vivacious Kathleen, who had given her boyfriend’s tall, gawky sister advice about clothes and makeup and boys, never hinting that she might have better things to do. Who had helped her deal with her own conflicting urges until she grew into her body and found Janice.
“She’s alive.” But her hopes were dashed with the doctor’s next words. “But she’s in surgery right now, and if she survives…” he trailed yalova escort off wearily, and Maureen wondered how many times he’d been forced to have conversations like this. “Her injuries are very traumatic, Miss Lawrence. I’ll do you the courtesy of being honest. It’s only a matter of time. Their car was thrown into a utility pole. Between the internal damage and the head trauma, it would take a miracle for her to ever regain consciousness.”
“Brandon,” she whispered, gripping Janice’s hand tight. Would her nephew be taken from her as well?
But Dr. Young brightened a little, happy at last to impart some good news. “Ah. The little boy? Well, he was knocked about a bit. But he was strapped into his car seat nice and tight, and he was on the right side of the car. So he should be just fine. Would you like to see him?”
She stood up so quickly she knocked her chair over. “Yes. Where is he?”
Young led them down a hall, harshly lit with fluorescent lights and filled with the stale, antiseptic smell all hospitals seemed to share, to a small, private room. Obviously meant for children, it was carpeted, with bright pillows and old coloring books strewn about. Inside, a small, black-haired boy slept on a cot, a bandage on his forehead, just above his left eyebrow.
“We had to put a couple of stitches in,” Young said, his voice soft. “He took a nasty knock when the car hit the pole. There were a few scratches from the glass, and he’ll have an impressive collection of bruises. But otherwise he’s fine. How old is he?”
“Three,” she said, her voice choked. Tears dripping down her face, she pulled Brandon into her lap, hugging him close. He made a small, inarticulate noise of protest in his sleep, but then settled down, cuddling close to her body. Her tears fell onto his cheek, and she wiped them away with shaking fingers.
“What do you need, honey?”
She laughed, short and bitter, blinking back the tears. “To wake up. But since this probably isn’t a nightmare, can you call my folks? We need…” Sobs threatened to overcome her fragile self-control. “We need to tell my parents my brother is dead. And that Kathleen is hurt bad. I hope they know how to get hold of Kathleen’s family. Because I sure don’t.”
“Another officer was sent to contact Mrs. Lawrence’s family,” Dr. Young said from his position near the door. “But we reached out to you first, since the card we found in your brother’s…effects…listed you as next of kin for Brandon here.”
Next of kin. It sounded so cold. But now the full weight hit her. When Bryce and Kathleen had asked her to be Brandon’s guardian, in case anything happened to them, she had agreed without a second thought. Surely, nothing could happen to that bright, shining couple, so full of life and joy. Surely, it was merely a precautionary measure, the same way she took her birth-control pills every morning, even though she and Janice had been exclusive with each other for nearly two years, much to the silent displeasure of her parents.
Now…she felt a vast responsibility settle over her shoulders.
I’m going to be his mother.
“Happy Birthday, dear Brandooonnnn. Happy birthday, to yooooouuuu!!”
The old song trailed off in cheers and a smattering of applause from his parents, grandparents, and cousins, and Brandon blushed, pride mingling with embarrassment.
He smirked at his cousin Hazel, three years younger than him and well on her way to being a heartbreaker. Holding up his hand, he struck an important pose, wordlessly asking for silence.
“My fellow Americans,” he intoned, lifting his chin high, his eyes staring at a star-spangled future. “As your president, I would like to inform you that I have signed legislation outlawing the following states — Nebraska, Oklahoma, West…wait. What?” He blinked in mock-confusion as his family laughed.
“Hazel. Take our picture!” Mom Janice leaned in on one side. Mom Maureen leaned in from the other. They caught each other’s eyes, and placed synchronized kisses on each of his cheeks.
“Ack!” He pawed at his face, eliciting another round of laughter. “Get it off! Get it off! Cooties! Girls! Germs!”
“If you’re done playing class clown, Brandon, maybe we can cut the cake before it melts,” his grandmother Hanks said, her voice acid.
“Sure, Grandma.” He got out of the way so Uncle Tom could cut the cake.
It was a glorious day in early October. It had rained the night before, but now the sky was a clean, robins-egg blue, and a brisk breeze pulled leaves down from the maple trees, swirling in red and yellow and orange as they fell to the ground. Behind the house he shared with his mothers, a tent was set up, the remains of a huge pot-luck dinner scattered on the long table he and Maureen had hauled out of the garage earlier in the day. Games were set up for the younger kids and the more active adults, yalova escort bayan all on his birth-mother’s side of the family. A badminton net was stretched across one area, and three of his younger cousins were busily whacking croquet balls around, seemingly less concerned about where the balls were going than by how far they could hit them, if the shrieks coming from that corner of the yard were any indication.
“Come on, Dad,” Hazel said, eying the ice cream cake and elbowing in beside him. Beside her, her sister Shelly nodded greedy agreement. “Put some muscle into it.”
“You think you can do better,” his uncle said, “you’re welcome to try.” Grunting with the effort, he managed to shove the carving knife through the frozen treat, then put slices onto the paper plates people were holding out.
Brandon got out of the way and sat down, cutting off a small piece from his own modest slice. He closed his eyes in appreciation as the ice cream and cold, gooey fudge mingled in his mouth.
Eighteen. An adult. Even though most of my family still treats me like I’m six.
Shelly and Hazel sat across from him, cake on their own plates. “Happy birthday, Brandon,” Shelly mumbled through a sticky mouthful.
“You got a college picked out yet?” Hazel asked curiously. “It’s all my mom ever talks about. That I need to get good grades so I can get into a good school.” She made a face.
He smiled. “Still have to get accepted to the ones I want, yet. No use picking a school when no one wants me.”
A pair of warm lips touched his cheek, and his girlfriend settled in beside him. “Are you still worrying about that?” Diane asked. “Everyone knows how good your grades are. You’ll have your pick of schools and you know it.”
“We’ll see,” he said noncommittally.
“Grandma says you got your daddy’s looks and Aunt Kathleen’s brains,” Shelly said, her brown eyes guileless. “And that you’re lucky it wasn’t the other way around. And she also said she’s glad you’ve got a girlfriend, cuz you were raised by a couple of dykes. Then Dad got real mad at her and told her that if he ever heard her say something like that again, she couldn’t come visit anymore. What’s a dyke?”
Hazel choked on her soda. Fuming, Brandon managed to keep a rein on his temper. He knew his grandmother Hanks didn’t approve of the women who raised him. But he thought she was smart enough to keep her opinions to herself. Shelly was only eleven. Why was his grandmother spewing her bigoted views in front of a child?
“Hey,” he leaned towards Hazel. “Can I tell you tell a secret?”
His cousin bent over the table. “Sure!” Shelly leaned close as well.
He lowered his voice. “Once, when you were real little, I took a dead bug off the windowsill and fed it to you. Sorry about that.”
Shrieking, the girls jumped up, tearing around the table in an effort to get to him and beat him to a pulp. Brandon got up and let them chase him across the yard.
Diane watched her boyfriend fondly, as he dodged among the younger children. Seeing what was going on, other kids took up the chase, until Brandon was trailing a tail of pumping legs like a dark-haired comet.
“What happened?” an amused voice asked. Diane looked up to see Brandon’s mothers looking at the scene.
Diane made a face. “Shelly was repeating some gossip from Brandon’s grandmother. Nasty stuff that would make my mom wash my mouth out with soap if she heard me say it. So he decided to distract them.”
“Ah,” Maureen said. The tall, willowy woman smiled crookedly. “Let me guess. We are risking hellfire and eternal damnation if we don’t give up our godless ways, and return to a life of monogamous heterosexuality?”
It took a moment to drill through the vocabulary to detect the bitter sarcasm, but Diane nodded. “Yeah. Pretty much.”
Maureen sat down in the spots recently vacated by Brandon’s cousins, her wife joining her. “Well, I shouldn’t be surprised,” she said, pushing Shelly’s slowly-melting ice-cream cake to one side. “She made it perfectly clear she didn’t want me raising Brandon.”
Diane nodded. She had heard the story a couple of times. The details varied depending on who was doing the telling, but the broad strokes remained clear. After his mother and father died in a terrible car crash, Maureen was given guardianship of little Brandon, who was then only three years old. Brandon’s grandmother, the mother of his birth-mother Kathleen, had been horrified by the idea of her grandson being raised by a woman who was bisexual and openly living in a relationship with another woman. She had tried for months to pry Brandon away from Kathleen and Janice, arguing that the woman wasn’t a fit guardian for him.
Kathleen had defied them all. She had moved heaven and earth to keep Brandon with her, changing jobs so she could work from home and moving out of her apartment to a home in the suburbs, all to satisfy the state agencies who looked escort yalova askance at a single woman raising her nephew. And when gay marriage became legal, she and Janice had married, giving Brandon a second parent, even if it was one that his grandmother vociferously disapproved of.
And despite it all, Brandon had grown up happy, healthy, intelligent, caring, and kind. She smiled across the yard at him, where he had picked up his cousin Jeremy and was holding him upside down, blowing raspberries into his belly while the little boy shrieked with laughter.
A good boyfriend and lover, too, Diane recalled with a smile, recalling the previous night with a dreamy smile. Brandon’s mothers were refreshingly relaxed about sex, and didn’t lay a lot of arbitrary rules on them. As long as they were both happy, the unspoken assertion went, Maureen and Janice weren’t going to get involved.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt when you are as good-looking as Maureen and Janice, she thought with a smile. When you looked at the two women, you wondered why Brandon’s grandmother feared he would turn out gay. You’d have to be as flamingly homosexual as Randy Rainbow to not find them attractive. And if that was the case, well, there was no hope for you anyway. Maureen was tall, with hair as black as coal and deep green eyes. Janice was a little shorter than her wife, slimly built with olive skin that betrayed her Hispanic blood and hair that varied from black to a deep, rich brown to dark red shot with mahogany highlights, depending on her whim.
“So how are you and Brandon getting along?” the smaller woman asked with a friendly smile.
“We’re good,” she answered. She poked at her cake, which was slowly melting, then looked up, biting her lip. “Hey. Can I ask you two a question?”
“Well. That sounds serious,” Maureen said. “Sure, honey.”
“Why does…why does Brandon call you both ‘Mom?'” she asked in a rush. “I mean,” she nodded at Maureen. “You’re his aunt, right? And you’re not related to him at all, really. I mean, biologically,” she said to Janice, then realized how rude the question sounded. “Sorry,” she said, cursing her fair skin which made her embarrassed blush obvious.
Janice smiled. “It’s okay, Diane. I don’t mind. I’ve been called worse.” Diane’s face flushed as she realized who Janice might be comparing her to. She glanced at Maureen, her lips quirked. “It was Brandon, wasn’t it, Mo?”
The other woman nodded. “It had to be confusing for him. So many changes. When he was a little boy, and his parents were alive, he called me Aunt Maureen, of course. Because I was. And Janice was ‘Aunt Janice,’ kind of by default.
“When gay marriage became legal, Janice and I jumped at the chance. And once that was done, we thought about whether we should go through with a legal adoption.
“But that confused Brandon. Understandable, of course. After the adoption, he was calling Janice ‘Mom’ but me ‘Aunt Maureen.’ He decided that didn’t make any sense. If we were his adoptive mothers, and married, the logical conclusion, at least for him, was that he would call us both ‘Mom,’ even if biologically I was his aunt. She shrugged expressively, and Diane tried not to look too closely at the wave of motion in her impressive chest. “It’s worked out so far. And hell, it’s legally true now. And it pisses off his grandmother something fierce. Though that might just be an unintended bonus.”
Diane looked over her shoulder. Brandon had been captured, it seemed, and was rapidly being buried under a heap of his cousins. His mother Kathleen had been the oldest of four, and the other three siblings had seemed determined to make up for their sister’s death by providing their parents with as many grandchildren as possible. “Diane!” he cried piteously, as a tiny girl bounced up and down on his chest, cackling madly. “Help me, please! I’m under attack!”
“I guess I better help him,” she said, standing up. “Later.”
“If you don’t get your eyes off that girl’s ass,” Janice said to her wife in a low voice, “Cynthia is going to think every story about us is true.”
“But it’s such a nice ass,” Maureen whispered back, faking a pout, as she watched Diane walk away. She didn’t think the younger girl knew the effect she was having on her and her spouse. Most teenagers thought that no one above the age of thirty was interested in sex. But her rear, encased in a pair of hip-hugging jeans, combined with a white cashmere sweater which emphasized both her chest and her healthy young body, had drawn regretful sighs from them both. “I wish my figure was still like that.”
“Really?” Janice drawled, her fingers stroking her arm. “It must have been someone else’s face I was sitting on last night. Because her body looked just fine to me. Relax, babe. It’s going to be a few years before you start to fall apart. You’re only forty-one.”
“Forty-one?” she replied, stung. “I’m thirty-seven, and you know it!” She caught the wicked gleam in Janice’s eye and lowered her voice, even as curious eyes swung their way. “Bitch. I ought to spank you.”
She shook her head. “You’re impossible.”